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Local doctors, nurses beg people to get COVID-19 vaccine

Hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties are overflowing with patients as COVID-19 cases spike. Mail Tribune file photo
Patient surge overwhelms Jackson, Josephine county hospitals

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations skyrocketing in the Rogue Valley, choosing not to get vaccinated is now like choosing to drive drunk.

That was the blunt message Thursday from Dr. Leona O’Keefe.

"If you choose to drive after drinking too much, you may arrive home unharmed. Or you might get pulled over and feel the pain of the price of a ticket or some time in jail, but you'll recover. Or you may get into a car accident and seriously hurt or kill yourself or others around you," said O’Keefe, deputy health officer for Josephine County Public Health.

People can save lives by choosing not to drink and drive ― and they can save lives by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask, she said.

Jackson and Josephine county doctors and public health workers joined forces in a Thursday press conference to detail the dire situation facing hospitals, health care workers, COVID-19 patients and people with other medical conditions who are in desperate need of medical care that is being delayed.

Jackson County reported a record-shattering 416 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, while Josephine County logged 133 new cases.

At least 149 people with COVID-19 are in Asante’s three Rogue Valley hospitals plus Providence Medford Medical Center, according to Thursday state data that may be lagging behind actual admissions.

Asante hospitals alone had 128 COVID-19 patients, with 39 in critical care units and 23 of those on ventilators, Amanda Kotler, a registered nurse and vice president of nursing for Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and Ashland Community Hospital, said Thursday.

People who aren’t vaccinated are much more likely to be hospitalized compared to those who are, local and national data show.

"Over 94% of these patients are unvaccinated. These COVID patients are younger and sicker than ever before," Kotler said of current patients hospitalized locally with COVID-19.

All four hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties are overflowing, with patients filling hospital beds, emergency rooms, hallways and operating rooms where surgeries have been canceled.

Patients have no privacy in hallways. They can’t get the rest they need with the beeps and alarms of medical equipment sounding all around them, warning doctors and nurses of falling oxygen levels and other problems, said Dr. Jason Kuhl, chief medical officer for Providence Medford Medical Center.

Jackson and Josephine counties teamed up this week to ask the state for a field hospital, medical workers and ventilators. Ventilators have flowed into the Rogue Valley, but it’s not clear yet when a field hospital could be set up. The state is considering four field hospitals in Oregon.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 patients and those with other medical emergencies are facing hospital conditions that would have been unthinkable before.

People with injuries, heart attacks, strokes and other emergencies are coming into hospitals where dozens are already waiting ahead of them, Kotler said.

“You wait for six hours, then you get pulled into the back of the emergency department. You’re put in a hallway bed and you often stay there for 24 hours. Not only that, but you are there with 10, 20, 30, 40 people that are also waiting for beds,” she said.

Hospitals have canceled surgeries unless a person will die within days without care.

“Imagine that you’re a patient sitting with your physician and your physician says to you, ‘You have cancer, or you have heart disease or you have stroke symptoms and you need surgery.’ In a world before, you would have gotten that surgery in days, and now you’re being told, ‘We can’t accommodate you. We can’t do that,’” said Dr. Jamie Grebosky, chief medical officer for Asante.

He said doctors aren’t able to tell patients when they will be able to have surgery.

Asante has had to deny more than 350 surgeries, Kotler said.

“That's 350 people that could be in pain or need life-saving treatment that have had to wait. What this means is that if you come to our hospital for any reason, we might not be able to help you,” she said.

Physically and emotionally exhausted health care workers are putting in 12-, 16- and 20-hour shifts as they struggle to care for surging numbers of patients, Kotler said.

“You see them and they’re almost delirious after their shifts. They’re so tired and traumatized by what they’ve endured,” she said.

Patients can’t have visitors and family support. As they die, health care workers try to help them get goodbye messages to loved ones, she said.

“I also don’t think that we can ignore that this topic is divisive,” Kotler said. “And so our health care workers are also on the receiving end of people’s opinions and anger against the virus and mandates.”

Kuhl said the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic has driven many nurses, doctors and other medical workers into early retirement or other fields.

He said workers are traumatized by what they see as patients get sick and die ― all while some very vocal people in the community argue against vaccination.

Rogue Valley hospitals are searching as far away as San Francisco and Spokane to try and find beds for people, officials said.

"This is by far the worst we've seen since COVID began. I think it's also worth noting that this is the worst condition our hospitals have seen ― likely ever,“ said Josephine County Public Health Manager Mike Weber. ”I don't know that anyone can recall a time when we've had this much pressure on our health care system, which is why we have to come together. Nothing that we do in public health is as effective as the community coming together and taking protective measures to keep themselves safe."

Countries that have already been swept by the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 generally hit a peak, then plateau for 5-8 weeks before cases fall, O’Keefe said.

No one knows yet when Jackson and Josephine counties will hit their peaks.

Social gatherings, big events like the Josephine County Fair and the return of school activities could continue to cause spikes in cases, local health officials said.

"Vaccination can stop this. It can stop people from getting really sick, it can stop the number of cases we're seeing and it can reduce the number of people who are sick in our hospitals," said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County Health Officer.

For information on getting vaccinated in Jackson County, see jacksoncountyor.org/hhs/COVID-19/Vaccine-Appointments.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.